Sydney’s oldest theatrical institution, the Theatre Royal is slated to reopen, with the NSW Government committing to a 45-year lease with the owners. The Harry Seidler-designed 1,180 seat theatre has been closed since March 2016, when development began on the MLC Centre, which houses it. The closure of the theatre was a blow to a city in desperate need of more large venues to cater for major touring productions.
Sydney’s Theatre Royal
Established in 1827, the original Theatre Royal burned down in 1840, before a new Theatre Royal was built in 1875 on Castlereigh Street. When construction began on the MLC Centre on the site in 1971, the Theatre Royal as we know it today was incorporated into the design.
“We have committed to negotiate a 45-year lease with Dexus and Dexus Wholesale Property Fund and in doing that we pave the way for a private theatre operator to run the Theatre Royal,” a spokesperson for NSW Arts Minister Don Harwin’s office told Limelight.
Following the State election this weekend a tender process will begin to find an operator for the theatre. A timeline for the theatre’s reopening will depend on the extent of refurbishment needed. That refurbishment could mean expansion of the theatre’s capacity, but that will be a matter for the private operator, the spokesperson said.
Create NSW confirmed the tender process will begin after the election. “Further to the commitment by the NSW Government for a 45-year lease for Sydney’s Theatre Royal, Create Infrastructure can confirm it will oversee negotiations to find a private operator once the NSW Government has been confirmed,” a spokesperson for Create Infrastructure told Limelight.
“This is a great outcome for Sydney and its night-time economy, the arts community and the theatre-going public,” said Dexus CEO Darren Steinberg, who was appointed to the board of the Powerhouse Museum just before Christmas last year. “We look forward to activating our development plans for a vibrant retail and dining precinct to support the success of a future theatre offering, as well as the wider Martin Place precinct and the many workers and visitors to this area every day.”
“Any costs relating to the refurbishment of the theatre for re-opening will be met by the successful theatre operator from the public tender process,” a spokesperson for Dexus told Limelight. “We are unable to disclose any development costs due to the confidential terms of the agreement with the government.”
While the NSW Government’s plans for a new lyric theatre at Ultimo as part of the Powerhouse Museum redevelopment may eventually ease some demand for theatre space, there has been considerable pressure on the Government to reopen the Theatre Royal, including a petition to reopen the theatre last year that reached almost 10,000 signatures.
“Sydney has fallen way behind Melbourne when it comes to live performance venue capacity which is not only bad for Sydney but also impacts on audiences around the rest of the country,” Evelyn Richardson, Chief Executive of peak body Live Performance Australia, said in a statement in 2018. “Sydney is a vital part of a national touring schedule particularly for international productions. If a show can’t be booked into Sydney, that can affect the touring prospects for other Australian cities. Australian audiences are missing out on seeing great shows because there are not enough venues in Sydney to make presenting these productions viable.”
“The loss of the Theatre Royal has materially impacted the opportunity for Sydney to host major productions, depriving local performers and industry workers of jobs, limiting choice for audiences, and short-changing the visitor economy through lost visitation and economic activity generated by live performance,” she said.
As for who might operate the theatre, Sir Howard Panter’s Trafalgar Entertainment Group has had its eye on the Theatre Royal for some time, and in November put forward a proposal to Dexus. “At the time Dexus and GPT, who were the joint owners then, were still deciding on how they wanted to redevelop the whole MLC Centre. So they were not prepared to commit to anything on the theatre until they’d had a time to think about their overall redevelopment plans,” Tim McFarlane, Executive Chairman of Trafalgar Entertainment Asia-Pacific Pty Limited, told Limelight.
Trafalger’s interest in the theatre hasn’t dimmed however. “We’ve let it be known both to the current government, and to the opposition, and to Dexus, of our interest in the Theatre Royal, and we believe we’ve got a lot offer it in terms of theatrical experience both here and overseas, huge programming contacts again here and overseas – and Trafalger has the financial strength to stand behind a long lease and to redevelop the theatre.”
McFarlane and Panter are familiar with the theatre and what it will take to refurbish it, though they haven’t seen any costings at this time. “We were involved in extensive discussions some time ago about the theatre, so we’ve probably got as good a handle as anybody on what is needed to bring that theatre back up to first class standard,” McFarlane said. “The theatre’s over 40 years old and in some ways the interior reflects that. And a lot of the facilities in there, like the lavatories and the seats in the theatre, the bars – they need bringing up into something that’s a lot more contemporary.”
As far as expanding the Theatre Royal’s capacity goes, physically that would be extremely difficult, McFarlane said, but at the size it is now he thinks it has a really good role to play in Sydney’s theatre scene. “The more intimate seating capacity of the Royal is better suited to a lot of productions,” he said. “It’s got a stage that accommodated The Phantom of the Opera and Les Misérables and Cats and Jersey Boys – it’s got a good stage.”
NSW Shadow Arts Minister Walt Secord has given his in-principle bipartisan support for the project, but said in a statement to Limelight that if elected he would seek a full and detailed briefing on the Theatre Royal plan and any “unseen” financial agreements before he signed the proposal.
“On day one, I would seek a full briefing from Create NSW Infrastructure so we can get Theatre Royal re-opened,” Secord said. “Make no mistake, Labor wants to see the Theatre Royal restored to its former glory – but we need to know the details of what we are signing taxpayers up for; that is the responsible financial approach as it is a 45-year agreement.”
NSW Labor has promised to scrap the government’s Powerhouse proposal if elected, the party instead committing to a $500 million ‘cultural institution’ in Parramatta, which would scupper any plans for a new 1,500-seat theatre at Ultimo – the current Government’s solution to the overall theatre problem.
“Reopening the Theatre Royal means we’ll have three world-class theatres in Sydney to host the world’s best blockbuster musicals,” Harwin said. “With plans for a lyric theatre for Ultimo that will make four major theatre venues in Sydney. Gone will be the days of Broadway and West End shows exiting stage left to other cities. Sydney will once again be number one in the nation for musical theatre.”
Secord, however, places the blame for Sydney missing out on Broadway and West End shows squarely at the feet of the NSW Government. “The Berejiklian Government has lost too many international blockbusters to Melbourne, including Harry Potter,” he said.
McFarlane reiterated to Limelight the need for more theatre space in Sydney, saying the city lags behind other comparable cities like Melbourne and Toronto. “Sydney misses out on shows as a consequence,” he said. “We really applaud the government and the opposition for their bipartisan support for retaining the Theatre Royal, but Sydney still needs another 1,500 seat theatre on top of that – certainly there are plans for Ultimo, [but] if it’s not Ultimo, there still needs to be an additional theatre besides the Royal.”